Thursday, March 27, 2014

15th Century grief & 20th Century grooming

In 1401 a Bohemian clerk called Johannes von Saz lost his wife in childbirth and next day wrote a dialogue with Death as full of vivid grief and rage as you'd expect from such an outpouring. Death and the Ploughman has been translated by Irish writer Michael West into a dramatic diatribe for voices, an argument by turns lyrical and chilling, with unexpected shifts and even dark comedy, and The Mechanical Animal Corporation with Tobacco Factory Theatres has taken this into Bristol's Arnos Vale Cemetery for an extraordinary piece of site-specific promenade theatre.
 'Promenade' always makes me think of strolling with parasols, but here we trooped by torch-light up muddy forest paths between tombs where dim-lit figures could be glimpsed tending their graves and decorated figures mourned on their own headstones, as we followed the ploughman in his contentious pursuit of Death deeper and deeper into her dark realm. Death disdains his protests. "Man lives in this world a stranger in a strange land: from the moment you enter this world you are old enough to leave it." The language is often biblical but the debate about love and suffering is timeless, and Death's speech of scorn at mankind's use of life is, though short of fracking and bankers's bonuses, as fresh as this week's facebook. Director Tom Bailey and his cast have created a gripping & unforgettable theatrical event, with a satisfying final verdict from the strange chorus: "The honour is to the ploughman, but the victory is to Death." It's on till Sunday ~ if it's not sold out dig out your warmest clothes & go.

I haven't seen Pygmalion since the movie of My Fair Lady in 1964 and I'd forgotten how seriously political a statement about the unpalatable nature of class distinction the play is intended to be, so it was interesting to see this unsaccharine production at Theatre Royal Bath. The allusion in the title seems deliberately ironic: Professor Higgins did not fall in love with Eliza as an artwork and make her real, he remained obsessively infatuated with his own skill and made a real girl miserably artificial, which makes a truly satisfying outcome difficult. Shaw had problems with his directors over this from the 1914 opening night on, but director David Grindley finds an ending the writer might have accepted while emphasising the situation comedy and verbal wit throughout. Effectively simple sets and beautifully muted costumes evoke the era superbly and there's a strong cast, with Rula Lenska as Higgin's mother and Jamie Foreman as Eliza's father excellent and Alistair McGowan as the high-functioning sociopath professor outstanding.

This week's Frome-fact: Hot on the heels of the Sunday Times accolade, The Times has published a list of the 30 most glamourous places to live in the UK with Frome at number 7 ~ just ahead of Primrose Hill. Their rational is based on occasional celeb-spotting rather than town life but it's nice to be popular, even with journos who praise house prices and the fact 'commuters from Bristol and Bath live here.'

And I can't post without a farewell to Tony Benn whose funeral is today. His image is featured in the window of the Health Food shop in Cheap Street, with a quote of wonderful simplicity and wisdom.  "If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people."

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